Location: 5102 Baum Blvd., Bloomfield. 412-224-2579. www.toastkitchen-winebar.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-13; entrees $14-25
Fare: Contemporary American
Atmosphere: Romantic bistro
Liquor: Full bar
Remember Baum Vivant? We do, and we never even went there. As Tony Pais' first restaurant, it defied its iffy location and punny name to bring contemporary Continental cuisine to a local fine-dining scene largely stuck in '60s French and '70s Italian. Its legacy is legion, but its actual space remained shuttered after the restaurant closed in 2006.
Until now -- when, at last, Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar has taken up the mantle of sit-down sophistication on Pittsburgh's automobile alley. But to paint it as a direct descendent of its predecessor would be a mistake. Owners Paul Tebbets and Chet Garland have updated the interior, creating a warmly intimate space from what could have been a claustrophobically narrow, nearly windowless first floor. (Auxiliary dining and party rooms on the second floor are lighter, more formal.) A long bar on one side faces a banquette and tables along the opposite wall. Neither open nor cloistered, the kitchen is visible through a full-glass door.
In homage to Baum Vivant, the focal point of the room is a large swatch of the old restaurant's abstract floral wallpaper, preserved as a Warhol-worthy canvas, and below this relic are the best seats in the house, raised on a platform from which diners can survey the entire romantic scene. Actually, there are no bad tables, not even the coffee table near the door. Arriving without a reservation, we were seated there on a leather loveseat, and were perfectly cozy and comfortable.
More importantly, Tebbets, who manages the front of the house with a winning sense of humor, and Garland, who oversees the kitchen, have updated the approach to food with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients, simply yet inventively prepared. The menu consists of a single sheet of paper, food on one side, a well-curated selection of wines on the other, both very reasonably priced for the quality. Menu items change frequently and feature combinations both straightforward (shrimp and grits) and unexpected (add Habenero cheddar and brown-sugar butter to that). Other dishes, such as frog legs and turtle stew, are unique, or almost so, in Pittsburgh.
Perhaps most intriguing is the chef's tasting, in which Garland creates a unique four-course dinner just for you. Angelique put herself in his capable hands, while Jason pursued his interest in short-rib dumplings, spinach salad and lamb.
The dumplings were plump half-moons with thin wrappers in a luxurious browned-butter sauce with chunks of succulent lobster. In this context, the short ribs, though rich with melted fat, were comparatively lean, seasoned with earthy spices for contrast. An entrée of these might weary the palate, but a bowl of four delighted it.
The spinach salad took a more unified approach to both flavor and texture with baby leaves tossed with finely julienned green apple, small cubes of toasted country ham and a light apple-cider vinaigrette. The overall effect was light, fully flavorful and harmonious. Our only quibble, and one of the few flaws in our entire meal, was that the mild dressing was scant, and in some bites absent.
Jamison Farm lamb arrived as a mound of braised, tender meat -- we're guessing from the shank -- in a bath of "barbecue sauce," a concoction much lighter in flavor and consistency than its namesake, so that its tangy, smoky notes complemented without masking the meat. The lamb itself was extraordinary, fork-tender and marbled with melted fat. The horse-radish mashed potatoes were perhaps too subtle, but the roasted root vegetables were lightly caramelized while remaining moist and fluffy.
Lamb appeared again in Angelique's first course, lamb sweetbreads with beluga lentils and brown butter. The tiny lentils were al dente, the sweetbreads soft and savory. Diced carrots and onions added sweetness, while an herbal oil rounded out a balanced suite of flavors and textures. "No taste bud left behind," seemed to be the motto of this dish, which opened our eyes -- and our palates -- to the culinary possibilities of offal.
The snapping-turtle meat in the turtle stew had the muscle-y, meaty character of pot roast. Potatoes and carrots served as hearty traditional accompaniments, while corn kernels added satisfying pops and a surprising, subtle heat infused every bite.
The fish course consisted of walleye, flaky and full of flavor, over silken sweet potatoes graced with bright blood orange and bittersweet fennel. The meat course was a superb steak, just enough to satisfy, with truffle mac-and-cheese whose earthy notes made it the opposite of bland.
For dessert, cheesecake included tangy hints of goat cheese with a perfume of lavender. Chocolate raisin-bread pudding was marvelously mushy with the occasional bite containing little pockets of undiffused chocolate.
We've enjoyed many meals over the years, but this was one of the special ones, the ones that have us turning to each other and asking, "Are you tasting what I'm tasting?" Near perfection. We raise our glasses to Toast.